Sermon audio here.
Even the best, most brilliant answers are completely worthless if you’ve misdiagnosed the problem. The best cancer medicine in the world is useless for treating depression.
Today’s Holy Gospel shows us that we often misdiagnose our problems. And so naturally, we’re constantly pursuing the wrong course of treatment, which only adds to our frustrations.
Misidentifying our problems can be disastrous. Steven Covey tells us about a time when he did just that, and he urges us to learn from his mistake. He says,
I was in my office at home one afternoon writing, of all things, on the subject of patience. I could hear the boys running up and down the hall making loud banging noises, and I could feel my own patience beginning to wane.
Suddenly, my son David started pounding on the bathroom door, yelling at the top of his lungs. “Let me in! Let me in!” I rushed out of the office and spoke to him with great intensity. “David, do you have any idea how disturbing that is to me? Do you know how hard it is to try to concentrate and write creatively? Now, you go into your room and stay in there until you can behave yourself.”
So in he went, dejected, and shut the door. As I turned around, I became aware of another problem. The boys had been playing tackle football in the four-foot-wide hallway, and one of them had been elbowed in the mouth. He was lying there in the hall, bleeding from the mouth.
David, I discovered, had gone to the bathroom to get a wet towel for him. But his sister, Maria, who was taking a shower, wouldn’t open the door. When I realized that I had completely misinterpreted the situation and had overreacted, I immediately went in to apologize to David.[i]
What we have here is a clear case of misdiagnosis. There was a problem all right, but it wasn’t obnoxious, disruptful children. It was an injury, and the noise turned out to be David trying to help his injured brother. But his father, not knowing the facts, rushed to judgment and made the problem even worse.
It’s important that we correctly identify our problems before we try to work out solutions. This past week, something like 84 million people tuned in to the presidential debate hoping to hear solutions to some of the biggest issues of the day, things like the economy, foreign policy, racial tension, terrorism, and political corruption.
And while all these things are important, they’re actually symptoms of a much deeper problem. Novocain might stop your tooth from hurting, but it does nothing to get rid of decay. It’s not good enough to treat the symptoms; we need to get to the root of the problem.
That’s what Christ does in today’s Holy Gospel. No sooner does He show up in Capernaum than are people bringing him a paralyzed man. Just prior to this, our Lord had calmed a storm and cast out some demons, and so they were no doubt hoping that they, too, would get a miracle.
And they got a miracle all right, but it wasn’t the one they wanted—at least at first. They were looking for Jesus to remove the man’s paralysis. Instead, Jesus removes the man’s sin, pronouncing Holy Absolution: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”
Not the sort of miracle, the sort of healing, they were expecting. But had they, like Christ, correctly diagnosed the problem—sin—they would have seen that our Lord’s Absolution was the obvious course of treatment. As terrible as paralysis is, it’s merely a symptom of sin, which a much greater problem. Get rid of sin and you get rid of paralysis.
Now imagine instead of Lester Holt, Christ showed up at Hofstra University last Monday night to moderate the presidential debate. There’s no one more objective than Christ. And you could hardly ask for a better fact checker, what with Him being omniscient and all.
But instead of keeping the candidates honest or getting to the bottom of the political issues, imagine Jesus started asking Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton questions about the catechism and quizzing them on doctrine. Not a single question on NAFTA or nuclear warfare.
All Christ cares about, it seems, are things like sin and repentance—things the sinful flesh could care less about, things that could hardly seem less relevant to a paralytic or a presidential debate. Absolution is great and all, but it doesn’t cure paralysis or bring world peace.
Having said that, there’s never a reason to leave an encounter with Jesus disappointed. That can only happen if you’re looking to Him for the wrong things.
Sometimes we treat the Bible this way. We go to it as the big answer book but find ourselves disappointed when don’t find the magic verse we’re looking for. Contrary to what an ad for a bible study in the local LaGrange newspaper said, the Bible does not give us the answer to all of life’s questions.
If those are the expectations you bring to your study of Scripture, you’ll always go away disappointed. The Bible is not the big book of answers. That’s not why it was written. I’d like to know who shot the sheriff. I’d like to know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. But sorry, you won’t find answers to those questions, or many other, more serious ones, in the Bible.
What you will find is Law and Gospel. That is, a bunch of stuff about sin and hell, forgiveness and life, preaching and the Church, Baptism and the Body and Blood of Christ. And if you don’t think those are the most important solutions to the world’s deepest problems, then you need to rethink your diagnosis and repent.
Instead, many rush to judgment against God, thinking He doesn’t care and that His Word has nothing important to offer. This is why we don’t read the Bible or pray nearly as much as we should. It’s why we tend to prioritize so many other things above our Lord’s Church.
Image you lost your income or went to the doctor and received a terminal diagnosis. What would have a bigger impact on you: that, or if Word and Sacrament disappeared from the face of the earth? Even though it’s incredibly short-sighted, the Old Adam will choose health and money over preaching and Christian fellowship every single time.
When Christ says things that sound irrelevant or make no sense—like Him telling a paralytic that the solution to His trouble is the forgiveness of sins—pay careful attention. He’s redirecting you from your idols to repentance. When you find yourself disappointed with what Jesus has to say, it’s because you’ve been asking the wrong questions and looking for the wrong answers. Repent.
Even when our Lord finally gets around to healing the man’s paralysis, the reason He does it to prove to the unbelieving scribes that yes, He actually has the authority to forgive sins. Having the ability to miraculously heal the sick tends to make you more credible. And yet, not even this is enough to convince everyone of Christ’s divinity. They’re too preoccupied with the wrong problems and looking for the wrong solutions.
From our perspective, the big issues are things like politics, healthcare, the economy, poverty, climate change, abortion, the environment, marriage and sexuality, the state of our country, the state of our congregation, or the state of our personal health, finances, or relationships. These things are all important, but their brokenness is a symptom of a much deeper problem.
The fact is, as long as sin remains in the world, these problems will always be with us. What’s more, death is the common denominator of all these problems. Where do racism, global warming, nuclear disaster ultimately lead?
Death. We focus so much on treating the symptoms, we forget what the real problem is. Sin and death are problem. But we don’t like confronting them because one, the problem is staring back at us in the mirror, and we don’t like that. And two, we have no solution. When it comes to sin and death, we have no answers.
But Jesus does. He correctly diagnosed the problem and confronted it head on just outside the gates of Jerusalem one Friday afternoon. There, He quietly and humbly provided the solution to the world’s deepest problem. He died for your sin and broke death’s stranglehold on the Third Day.
Where there is the forgiveness of sin, there is life and salvation. Where there is forgiveness, death has lost its sting. In Christ, sin and death are no more. And it’s not just a solution for the paralytic, it’s for you, too: take heart, beloved child of God; your sins are forgiven.
Jesus barely had a handful of eyes on Him, let alone 84 million, when He was giving His life to solve the world’s deepest problem. And yet, His Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, will continue to go out to the ends of the earth until His return, regardless of who wins the presidency. That’s what matters.
When your problems are too uncomfortable or Christ doesn’t give you the answers you want, don’t become impatient and rush to judgment against God. That’s the opposite of faith in His goodness. That’s our Old Adam’s inherent atheism, which looks to everything except Christ for peace and joy. Rethink your diagnosis and repent.
Our culture’s brand of Christianity—what you find in the bookstores, hear on the radio, and see on TV—would have you believe that faith is the secret to happiness. But the Bible insists that faith is about as happy and pleasant as something like chemical warfare. Fight the good fight, St. Paul says.[ii] Faith is a fight, a struggle. It’s not supposed to be pleasant. Just ask the paralytic.
St. Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”[iii] Some day we will see clearly that God has loved us dearly, but in this world we often feel like praying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So that you do not lose hope, Christ has given you, too, His healing Word of Absolution. St. James encourages you to steadfast faith and patience by reminding you that God’s promises aren’t unlike a harvest. You plant the seed and nothing seems to happen for a while, but when the harvest finally does come, it’s glorious. He writes,
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”[iv]
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Covey, Stephen R.. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (p. 208). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
[ii] 1 Tim. 6:12
[iii] 1 Peter 4:12
[iv] James 5:7–8